For the past decade, Erik Stenglein has been at the forefront of Milwaukee heavy music. As vocalist/guitarist for Northless, he has orchestrated some of the most pummeling music to ever emerge from the area. His first experiences with heavy music date back to middle school—Crowbar on Beavis And Butt-Head and a hand-me-down Voivod tape. “I discovered death metal early on, so it kind of ruined me,” Stenglein says. “As soon as I heard Napalm Death in seventh grade it was like, ‘I don’t want to hear anything else that isn’t at least this.'” But the recipe for Northless isn’t just a steady diet of heaviness—Stenglein professes a predilection for math rock and His Hero Is Gone, as well as a love of “Orchid and Jeromes Dream, Saetia, all that stuff.” With this wealth of influences, along with the other members of Northless, he has created some truly punishing music.
In advance of Northless’ December 16 record release show at Cactus Club, Stenglein took a few moments to discuss the group’s new album, Last Bastion Of Cowardice, as well as their first decade as a band.
Milwaukee Record: You started as a two-piece?
Erik Stenglein: We started as a three-piece actually, in 2007. I was living in West Allis. The band I was in before this, I had been in for six years. It was a math rock band. I had some disagreements with a member of that band and decided I wanted to be done with it. I told Dan-O [Opgenorth, original Northless drummer] that it wasn’t working out for me and I was going to go do my own thing, and he said he didn’t want to stick around either.
[Original Northless bassist] Scott Lashay wanted to be in a band like [Northless], so I said, “Come to my shitty basement in West Allis.” I had one riff. We jammed there for a couple of weeks and my neighbors got pissed. We moved to the Hide House and we wrote the first EP together. It came together super easy, which was cool because you never know when you start a new band. I think Scott had things going on or something, so he quit the band.
We were a two-piece for a couple of years. I think I counted 1,800 watts of [equipment] at one point. It was me and Dan-O moving it and it was a lot of hassle. But it was cool. It was fun to play that way and play that loud. The split with Protestant is a two-piece, the No Quarter For The Damaged record, and the Leaving The Wolves tape is two-piece. Then Dan moved out to California. So then I [thought] I might stop the band. [It was] 2009, I think.
I was like, “I’m going to contact two people and if they say no, it’s done.” So, I contacted [drummer] John [Gleisner] and [guitarist] Nick [Elert]. I was stoked because I thought they were going to say no. As soon as they said yes, we got John Grant as our second bass player. He was in the band for the Clandestine Abuse record. He wrote it with us, played on the album, and then moved to California.
Jerry [Hauppa] found out we didn’t have a bass player and said he could fill in for a few shows. Eventually, I was like, “I noticed you show up for a lot of shows. Why don’t you just join the band?” That was six and a half years ago now. He’s still in the band and we’re still doing it.
MR: As far as the dynamics of writing, you bring in the skeletons and everyone fills in their own parts?
ES: Exactly. I never write any bass parts. I give it to Jerry because he’s good at that. Drums, I definitely demoed some drums for John for reference, but he does his own thing. He made them good. I’ve played drums for about 17 years, but I don’t play drums at all like John. John has feel and taste and is good. I am just like, “I’m going to play blast beats.” It’s more me saying this part should be slow, this part should be fast. He will add cool tasteful rolls and dynamics. With Nick, I’d give him guitar stuff and he made it better. He is a legitimate guitarist—he goes to school for music. He actually has that knowledge and has a good ear.
[John and Nick] were the two guys I contacted because I knew they could handle the material, because it was getting more progressive. When they joined the band, I think we all leaned toward that, especially when Jerry came on board. I think we’ve gotten more progressive musically through the years. On this new one, in my own mind, I thought I was going to scale it back. I tried to go back to straight heavy riffing, but they told me I failed. They said it didn’t happen. I ended up writing a really hard record. I guess I hear that.
MR: As far as the sound, do you look at volume as a crucial part of the dynamic?
ES: I think so. I don’t think it would be the same if there wasn’t that element there. I think it just pushes the frequencies more than anything. I never thought of it as “Manowar loud.” where it’s high and piercing and obnoxious. It’s more like we’re tuned so low, we want the bass in the mids and lows to push through. We have to have volume in order to push it, and to do that you have to have loud amps. The other day at practice our bass amp broke and we had to use our backup, which is not nearly as good. It was missing something.
I think that feeling helps me get more into the music. It pushes the energy and I feel like I respond to that. When it’s off and I don’t have that sort of feeling, it doesn’t feel like I give as much energy back. When you’re playing in a loud, heavy band, you want that intensity.
When bands tour Europe, a lot of venues have a 90-decibel max. I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t know if it would have the same feel. I think if I played at 90 decibels all the time, maybe I would be able to hear my vocals better and maybe I would do different things. That might shape how I write music. Most people want something visceral. It can be technical or it can be simple. It doesn’t really matter, as long as I get some intensity and energy from it.
MR: I’ve read interviews where Kevin Shields [of My Bloody Valentine] talks about how they would play the noise section of their set for up to 45 minutes and people would hear melodies that weren’t really there.
ES: The loudest band I’ve ever seen in my life was Khanate. I saw them in Madison 11 or 12 years ago. Their first record is a little bit more riff-y, but my favorite of theirs is actually one where there’s 20 minute-plus songs and they may only hit notes occasionally, but [the notes are] really big. If you were to speed it up, yeah okay, there are some riffs happening, but the speed they play it at, you’re getting more of that visceral intensity. Live, it was so loud and punishing. It went on so long, and you’re right, you hear things that you’re not sure you’ve heard before. Man, [it was] just obliterating. It’s not crushing your ears because of treble, it’s pounding you into submission with huge tones. That was a big influence on me, even though I wasn’t wanting to play that slow, necessarily.
MR: I remember a two-piece Northless show at the Borg Ward where I thought I felt a cat walk against my leg, but then I realized it was the force from the drums moving my pants.
ES: Holy shit. That’s Dan-O [laughs]. He was a hard-hitting drummer. John is too—they’re both just beasts. I’m glad you say that, because that elicits a response. I don’t expect that everyone hears Northless and is like, “This is my new favorite band.” But for me, it’s personal, and with that loudness I think it’s projecting the energy that I’m feeling. If it was quiet, I don’t think it would get that across as well. I don’t think it would project in a way that would make sense. Every time I see a louder band, if I don’t feel the heaviness, it doesn’t matter how good they are. A lot of the times I’m not into it. Maybe I’ll still jam the record at home, but it’s kind of disappointing.
MR: Where does Last Bastion Of Cowardice fit into the trajectory of the band?
ES: On the new record, there’s quite a few things that I haven’t done a lot of before. Clean singing is one thing that I touched on before. If you’re in the studio trying to write vocal melodies after the fact, it takes up way too much time. It’s really nerve wracking, and you need a million takes. You’re not getting it because you’re nervous. This time, I had the time to work on stuff and I would hear a melody and I would have the time to try it.
Even though it’s still so heavy, I wanted every song to have its own identity, whereas before some of the stuff was kind of same-y. I think that’s what it’s going to be like in the future. It’s always going to be heavy, but different shades of heavy. There are a couple of fast things on this record where John’s playing blast beats in a couple of songs. There’s thrash beats and some sections that are way slower than anything we’ve done. I think that’s going to be more of the future.
MR: Do you think you have more records in you?
ES: I think so. I’m taking a break from writing. In the last year and a half, I just pounded. Every day or day and a half I was down in my basement working on stuff. At the same time, I wrote another doom metal depressive kind of thing that I still haven’t finished. I had a death metal record I did, a solo one, that I wrote while I was in there. Non-stop music for a year and a half. I don’t want to say I burned myself out, but I definitely need to take a little break.
I think a break would be good because if I sat down today and wrote a Northless song it would just sound like the ones I just did. Every time I’ve taken a break and haven’t written for a while, when I come back with a fresh perspective, it ends up evolving enough where it’s like a next step. This new record is the next level for us.